Alternate Oscars – By Danny Peary – 1993 (Why not Night of the Hunter?)

One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present

A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036


WINNER: Marty (Hecht-Lancaster/United Artists; Delbert Mann) Other Nominees: Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, The Rose Tattoo

THE BEST CHOICE: The Night of the Hunter (United Artists; Charles Laughton) Award-Worthy Runners-L’p: The Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks), East of Eden (Elia Kazan), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich), Mister Roberts (John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy), Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)

The Night of The Hunter

The Night of the Hunter – 1955

In 1955 Hollywood was still trying to lure viewers away from their television sets with big-budgeted, wide-screen color productions, yet the Academy selected a black-and-white film as its Best Picture for the third straight year and chose a modestly budgeted film for the second straight year. Robert Mitchum gave perhaps his finest and, with the possible exception of his sadist in Cape Fear, his creepiest portrayal as a phony preacher. Harry Powell marries and murders widows for their money, believing he is helping God do away with women who arouse mens carnal instincts. Arrested for auto theft, he shares a cell with condemned killer Ben Harper (Peter Graves) and tries to get him to reveal the whereabouts of the $10,000 he stole. Only Ben’s nine-year-old son, John (Billy Chapin), and four-year-old daughter. Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know the money is in Pearl’s doll and they have sworn to their father to keep this secret. After Ben is executed, Preacher goes to Cresaps Landing to court Ben’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters). He overwhelms her with his Scripture quoting, sermons, and hymns, and she agrees to marry him. On their wedding night he tells her they will never have sex because it is sinful. When the depressed, confused, guilty woman catches him trying to force John to reveal the whereabouts of the money, she is resigned to her fate and lets Preacher stab her to death. He almost stabs the children but they escape downriver. The Preacher follows. After a long, arduous journey John and Pearl are taken in by a Bible-quoting widow, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who cares for other orphans as well. She knows the children are troubled but doesn’t know why. Preacher turns up and demands his stepchildren. Rachel sees John is terrified and that Preacher is a phony. She chases him away. When he breaks into the house, she shoots him in the rear. The coward runs into the barn, where he is arrested. John swings the doll at him and the money pours out—he no longer has to keep the secret that has burdened him. Preacher is convicted of murder. John and Pearl settle in with Rachel, who marvels at how children abide and endure.

The Night of The Hunter

Adapted by Charles Laughton and James Agee (who got full screen credit) from Davis Grubb’s exciting Depression-era novel, Laughton’s single directorial effort is one of the great “discovery” films. Laughton supposedly didn’t care about the plight of John and Pearl Harper—he probably was attracted to Grubb’s story because it called for an unorthodox visual style and because of its malevolent, obsessed villain—and so detested child actors Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce that he had Mitchum direct them. So it’s amazing that The Night of the Hunter conveys such heartfelt empathy toward helpless little children, and that it has such insight into the cruel, dangerous, frightening world of children, particularly orphans.

The Night of The Hunter

The story is part children’s nightmare, part gothic horror film (at one point Preacher chases the kids as if he were the Frankenstein monster), part religious parable (as told to a child), part Grimm fairy tale, and part animated-cartoon fairy tale. It is full of the sort of imagery, props, locations, and animals that a child like John might see in a dream. As this film stresses, for unprotected children who exist in a wilderness of fear and confusion, nightmares continue even when they are awake. John and Pearl are much like Hansel and Gretel lost in the wilderness, who find refuge not with a witch who cooks children but a Mother Goose figure who cares for orphans. Rachel tells the children to be aware of false prophets (a Bible-story image), of wolves in sheep’s clothing (a fairy-tale image). Preacher, a human wolf in sheep’s clothing, is the classic deceitful fairy-tale villain who is ready to pounce on innocents. Like the wolves and other sneaky villains in cartoons, he also supplies the slapstick humor that provides the film’s necessary moments of levity: while chasing the kids, he is always tripping, getting his fingers smashed, or getting conked on the head, and finally he gets shot in the behind, which causes him to howl as he runs at supersonic speed into the barn. His howling, his mock crying, even his creepy L-O-V-E vs. H-A-T-E (the letters tattooed on his fingers), hand wrestling, and deep-voiced sermonizing have elements of absurd humor. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t terrifying. The two orphans, who, before they meet Rachel, have no friends and no adults to turn to, would turn to God were they not convinced that God is on the side of this evil man who quotes the Bible and claims to be a preacher. How lonely and afraid the children feel, and how guilt)’ John feels for keeping his father’s secret from this man of God. It is the religious Rachel who shows them that God is on their side and that the Preacher is the sinner.

The Night of The Hunter

As Rachel, Lillian Gish triumphantly returned to the screen. She matches Mitchum with a powerful performance. And exhibiting goodness, solemnity, and determination that characterized Gish’s silent movie heroines, tiny Rachel perfectly counters Mitchum’s massive, intimidating, hammy Preacher. In my favorite scene Preacher starts singing the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” while hiding in the and planning his attack on Rachel’s home. Surprisingly, Rachel, gun in hand, starts singing her version—which includes references to Jesus—to soften the effect of the blasphemer’s rendition. For a moment they harmonize and you know that she can’t be intimidated. Like John and Pearl—who didn’t trust anyone—we fall in love with Rachel and feel secure that she will protect these otherwise helpless children. Forget all those movie superheroes—Rachel is the answer to every scared child’s prayers.

Charles Laughton directing The Night of The Hunter

Laughton spent a great amount of time studying the techniques of D. W. Griffith and the German expressionists before undertaking his first directorial assignment. His picture looks different from any other film of the period. He and cinematographer Stanley Cortez came up with a remarkable number of amazing shots, many taken from unusual angles and employing innovative lighting.

In the day the frame is either hazy or so bright that everything is washed out; at night there are dust, smoke, fog, and spooky shadows—the scariest shadow is the Preacher’s, which forms on the wall of the children’s room. At one point Laughton puts his camera in a helicopter;  at other times he puts it directly behind a character’s face, or covers the character with shadows; even indoors the camera is kept at a distance so we see characters in relation to the floor, walls, ceilings, and props. It’s all quite exciting. My favorite shot is of John and Pearl floating downriver on their skiff, with the near bank and its animals in the foreground and the starry sky and fertile far bank in the background—its a magical multiplane image straight out of a Disney cartoon. Laughton made an auspicious debut as a director, but because his film failed he aborted his effort to bring The Naked and the Dead to the screen, and never directed again, which is a real shame. Surely a Best Picture Oscar would have changed his mind.

Charles Laughton (The Night of The Hunter)

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Alternate Oscars – By Danny Peary – 1993

Alternate Oscars – 1993

One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present

  • A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was conceived in early 1927 by MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, the most powerful figure in Hollywood. He intended it to be both an elitist, self-honoring club, with members chosen by Mayer himself, and a union-busting labor organization that would ostensibly unite actors, directors, and writers with producers before those three groups formed their own guilds. (This ploy worked only temporarily.) There were thirty-six founding members, including Mayer, his two lawyers, actor Conrad Nagel, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and director Frank Lloyd. The decision to hold an annual awards ceremony to honor films and individuals was not made until a banquet was held on May 11, 1927, during which more than three hundred of the Hollywood aristocrats paid a hundred dollars to become pioneer members of the Academy. It took another year before a voting system was in place. All members—actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers—would cast nominating votes in their particular branches. A five-person board of judges, representing each branch, yet controlled by Mayer, would tabulate the votes to determine the nominees and then choose the winners themselves.

The Wind – Poster Lillian and Lars

MGM’s The Wind – No hype received

Ironically, the best picture of the year, and a film whose greatness has not diminished, was also made at MGM. However, The Wind didn’t receive any of the hype given Broadway Melody, and America’s last silent masterpiece (Chaplin’s films had soundtracks) was completely ignored when pictures were nominated. Looking for a starring vehicle to fulfill her MGM contract, Lillian Gish wrote a four-page treatment of Dorothy Scarborough’s book The Wind, and got the go-ahead from (Irving) Thalberg to produce the film herself. She hired scriptwriter Frances Marion (who later admitted it was the last screenplay she put her heart into), Swedish director Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom in his native country), and Lars Hanson, Sweden’s most popular stage actor, to be her male lead. The four had just worked together on the impressive The Scarlet Letter.


The Wind, which was shot in 120-degree temperatures in California’s Mojave Desert, is the  story of an unmarried, gently bred young woman from Virginia who comes to live on a ranch with her male cousin and his family in the harsh, windswept Texas dustbowl. When her cousin’s jealous wife forces her out, and the “gentleman” (Montagu Love) who has courted her turns out to be married, the penniless woman agrees to marry – a kindly neighbor, Hanson. But she is unable to give him or the hostile land a chance. She feels completely isolated and the constant, howling winds drive her toward madness. While her husband is away rounding up wild horses, hoping to make enough money to send her back to Virginia, Love rapes her. She kills him and buries him in the sand. As originally filmed, the crazed woman then walks off into the wilderness to die. But when exhibitors refused for several months to show such a depressing picture, MGM had no choice but to reshoot the ending: This time Gish declares her love for Hanson, and tells him she will stay with him because she is no longer afraid of the winds.

Lillian Gish and Edward Earle

The Wind is an ahead-of-its-time feminist drama about a woman without money or opportunities who tries to survive in a man’s world. The only chance Gish has for an “easy life” is to become the mistress of Love, but she refuses to demean herself. Most interesting is how Marion deals with the relationships Gish has with the film’s other female, her cousin’s wife, and with Hanson. We dislike the cousin’s wife because of her cold treatment of Gish and for imagining her a rival for his affections. However, though she is a bitter woman she is no villain. She dearly loves her husband and without him, in this harsh world, she has no life, no options, so she holds on to him desperately. But as much as she wants Gish out of her life, she won’t abandon her to the lecher Love. Hanson is another interesting character. He falls in love with Gish but doesn’t want to dominate her (he won’t force himself on her). Instead, he wants equality, whereby he and Gish would work together and love each other. He realizes, and Gish comes to understand at the end, only together can they tame the winds.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) and Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower)

The Wind is beautifully acted by Gish and the talented, handsome Hanson. His most touching scene occurs when his new wife is disgusted by his attempt to embrace her and he assures her she need not fear his trying again. The picture is also exquisitely photographed (by John Arnold), with much emphasis on motion. Outside, the wind constantly blows (eight airplane propellers were used) as trains, wagons, and men on horseback force their way across the terrain. Seastrom creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia with repeated shots of the sand swirling toward windows and penetrating everything within Hanson’s cabin, including Gish’s clothes and long hair. When the door opens, sand rushes inside, making it impossible for Gish to keep the cabin tidy (Hanson doesn’t expect her to), and making her feel further trapped. The increasing disorder in the house represents Gish’s deteriorating mind.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The eerie scene in which her mind wanders with distorted, mad, hallucinatory images caused by the mobile camera that follows her through the dark, shadowy cabin, and a fantasized image of a white horse charging through the skies outside, reminds one of Seastrom’s Swedish horror classic, The Phantom Carriage. The reshot finale may seem a little hokey (she recovers awfully quickly from her mad spell once Hanson enters the cabin), but Seastrom’s last shot is a gem: The couple stands in the open doorway of their home, arms wrapped around each other, looking out into the wilderness without fear. Not only have the winds been conquered by love, but the wild (nature) and the domestic (the house), and this woman and this man, are as one.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, publicity photo for The Wind (Letty Mason and Lige Hightower)
Director Victor Sjostrom (left), cameraman John Arnold and Lillian – behind the scenes – “The Wind”
Alternate Oscars : one critic’s defiant choices for best picture – cover

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Edith Head, “Miss Susie Slagle’s,” and “Warning Shot”

Edith Head

Edith Head (October 28, 1897 – October 24, 1981) was an American costume designer who won a record eight Academy Awards for Best Costume Design between 1949 and 1973.

Born and raised in California, Head started her career as a Spanish teacher, but was interested in design. After studying at the Chouinard Art School in Los Angeles, Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1923. She won acclaim for her design of Dorothy Lamour’s trademark sarong in the 1936 film The Jungle Princess, and became a household name after the Academy Award for Best Costume Design was created in 1948. Head was considered exceptional for her close working relationships with her subjects, with whom she consulted extensively; these included virtually every top female star in Hollywood.

1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head - Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations
1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head – Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations

In 1924, despite lacking art, design, and costume design experience, the 26-year-old Head was hired as a costume sketch artist at Paramount Pictures. Later she admitted to “borrowing” other students’ sketches for her job interview. She began designing costumes for silent films, commencing with The Wanderer in 1925 and, by the 1930s, had established herself as one of Hollywood’s leading costume designers. She worked at Paramount for 43 years until she went to Universal Pictures on March 27, 1967, possibly prompted by her extensive work for director Alfred Hitchcock, who had moved to Universal in 1960.

Head worked at Paramount for 44 years. In 1967, the company declined to renew her contract, and she was invited by Alfred Hitchcock to join Universal Pictures. There she earned her eighth and final Academy Award for her work on The Sting in 1973.

1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head - Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations 3
1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head – Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations 3

A winner of eight Academy Awards for Costume Design, Edith Head helped define the style of classic Hollywood with her striking work at Paramount and Universal. Some of the movie stars she dressed included Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Paul Newman, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and many more. She also became a recognizable personality in her own right thanks to her distinctive personal style including her signature glasses and forthright personality, which inspired the character of Edna Mode in The Incredibles. Surprisingly, she only liked to wear four colors herself: black, white, beige and brown.

Gown designed by Edith Head for Lillian Gish (Miss Susie Slagle's)
Gown designed by Edith Head for Lillian Gish (Miss Susie Slagle’s)

This gown, made for Lillian Gish in 1946 for her role in Miss Susie Slagle’s, features elaborate soutache embroidery, popular in Edwardian times, and also making a comeback in the 1940s.

Lillian Gish and Edith Head - wardrobe preparations for Warning Shot 1966
Lillian Gish and Edith Head – wardrobe preparations for Warning Shot 1966

(Advance for use with Bob Thomas Column in PMS of Wednesday, April 13)

(LA1 – April 12) Hollywood, April 13 – No Idle Life for Lillian Gish – Actress Lillian Gish, right, who made her movie debut in 1912, goes over the wardrobe plans with fashion designer Edith Head at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where Miss Gish will star with David Janssen in “Warning Shot.” She flew to Hollywood from an Italian vacation to appear in the picture. During her Hollywood stay, Miss Gish plans to visit some friends and co-workers, and if there’s any time left over, she may do some work on the memoir she is writing about D.W. Griffith. (APWire Photo)(mw30300stu) 1966

Edith Head Costume Sketch for Miss Susie Slagle

1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head - Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations 2
1966 LILLIAN GISH and Edith Head – Warning Shot Wardrobe Preparations 2

Edith Head oscars
Edith Head oscars

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Lillian Gish’s Face (Opinion – The New York Times – 1993)

Opinion – The New York Times – 1993

Lillian Gish’s Face

March 2, 1993

What one can see at the movies is astonishing. The earth splits, mountains fall, oceans rise up, entire cities disappear. But sometimes the most astonishing sight of all is an actor’s face. That was especially true when films were silent. Sure, there were subtitles but it was the face — the curve of a lip or the lift of an eyebrow or the suggestion of a frown — that really delivered the text.

Lillian Gish at Six

If the face belonged to a Charlie Chaplin or a Lillian Gish, the audience would remember its message forever.

Lillian Gish was born in 1893, a few years after Thomas Alva Edison contrived “moving pictures.” Fifteen years later she was working in D. W. Griffith’s one-reelers: a young woman with thick, flyaway hair, big eyes and a small, pursed mouth. She was pretty and pleasant to look upon, but prettiness can’t hold the eye for very long. Rather, it was what was going on behind the facade that fascinated. Watching Lillian Gish was like reading a book.

In a 1928 film called “The Wind,” for instance, a storm whips the sand off the body of a man she’d shot and buried in the desert. The movie is pinchbeck; Gish’s evocation of horror, pure gold. But then, purity is the hallmark of all Lillian Gish’s work — whether she was using that marvelous face to project fear or love or innocence or vulnerability.

Some of her films are among the most famous ever made, others deserve the oblivion into which they’ve sunk. All, however, were important to her. When she received a special Oscar, she said of herself and her sister, Dorothy, “It was our privilege for a little while to serve that beautiful thing — the film — and we never doubted for a moment that it was the most powerful thing — the mind and heartbeat of our technical century.”

Lillian Gish died last week at 99, after having made brilliant use of herself and her “privilege.”

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August"
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August”

And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?”

“Nothing, Aunt Alice, just looking.”

(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

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Reel women  pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present – Ally Acker (1991)

REEL WOMEN – Ally Acker

Reel women  pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present (1991)

we know about Griffith, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Scorcese. But what about Blache, eber, Dulac, Lupino, and von Trotta? These women were just as essential and transformative to the cinema and yet their story has remained untold — until now.

  • The first director to tell a story on the screen was a woman.
  • The highest paid director in the days of silent films was a woman.
  • Even Helen Keller produced and starred in her own film in 1919.
  • The first film editor to receive solo screen credit was a woman.
  • The pioneer of social consciousness in film was a woman.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles


Lillian Gish (1896 – ……..)

“I never had a double or a stand-in,” Lillian Gish remarked to me proudly, “I did it all myself. The blizzard (in Way Down East [1920]—I was facing it. The wind on the peninsula was terrible. The snow as it came against my face melted, and on my eyelashes— icicles! And Griffith yelled at the cameraman, ‘Billy, Billy get that face!’ And he said, ‘I will if the oil in the camera hasn’t frozen,’ and he got that face!” And thus, is told the story behind how D. W. Griffith filmed his very first close-up. “But why did you do it if you knew you might have died?” I asked. Her look at me was one of kind impatience.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

“Because the camera would know it!” she said as though it were self-evident. “That camera is more dissecting than anything that’s ever been invented. You stay in front of it long enough, and it tells, as John Barrymore said, what you had for breakfast. You can’t fool it! And had it been another person lying on that ice, you’d know it from the way they moved. It would tell on you.”Such characteristics mark the pioneer. Actions born out of necessity.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

But aside from doing her own stunt work (something that wasn’t unusual for either women or men of the early silent era), Lillian Gish was put in the director’s seat by D. W. Griffith in 1920 with a picture called remodeling her husband (1920). The picture starred and was written by Lillian’s sister Dorothy. Griffith believed that, since Lillian and Dorothy were all but linked at the hip, Lillian would be able to extract a kind of able, insightful, comedic performance out of her sister that might elude even Griffith. “He confidently assured Lillian,” says Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus, “that because she was a woman, she’d be in a better position to deal with financial and production hassles than he was.”

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) – Remodeling Her Husband

All lapses in such logic aside, he seemed to be right—especially when you consider Griffith’s well-publicized, poor reputation for handling finances. Gish brought the picture in on time and under budget. It cost $50,000 and saw a sweet return of $460,000. It ultimately became the second biggest money-maker of all of Dorothy Gish’s comedies. Given a totally free hand at their choice of material, they decided on a funny piece of business that Dorothy had spotted in a magazine. The story told of a husband who accuses his wife of being too dowdy. Says Marjorie Rosen: No more than an amusingly expanded one-liner, in the hands of a female director and star, this film evolved into a novel approach to handling masculine dissatisfaction and feminine pliability. . . . How many male directors would have permitted — or utilized—a story which, though light, mocked men and their eccentric notions of beauty? Although the picture was a moderate success, Lillian Gish said, “Directing is no career for a lady.”

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

Apparently, the  administrative hassles were more than she cared to handle. Yet don’t let this Victorian modesty fool you—for that’s exactly what it was. Griffith left a number of pictures in the able hands of Gish. She produced many of her own films after 1920, even if she didn’t always take the credit. After her official directorial debut, Gish then starred in several major films of minor companies that gave her control over scripts and choice of directors. She received the same privileges when she joined MGM in 1925 and chose King Vidor and Victor Seastrom to direct her in “La Boheme” [1926] and “The Scarlet Letter” [1926] respectively.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

When she was doing “Orphans of the Storm” (1922), she had to come down the steps from the guillotine, after she was released from a beheading, and she met her sister: “I hadn’t cared for the way Griffith had rehearsed and done it,” said Gish, “He used to tease me by calling me Miss ‘GEEESH.’

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

“Apparently Miss ‘GEEESHE’ (she mimicks Griffith) doesn’t like what- we’re doing.” “Oh, it’s as good as a scene in any of your other films, Mr. Griffith. I just think more is expected of you.” He says, “If you’re so smart, get up there and do it better!” Well, I got down the steps and played it the way I felt it should be played. There were fifty to a hundred extras there. He got down on both knees and kissed my hand and said, “She’s always right!”

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette

As his number one box-office attraction, Griffith would be foolish not to listen to what Gish had to say. He once remarked, “She is not only the best actress in her profession, but she has the best mind of any woman I have ever met.”Fortunately, they respected each other mutually as artists and as people and were able to work out a collaboration that would benefit the entire world for generations to come. Although Gish was wed countless times on the screen, she never married in real life. The reaction to such independence and loyalty to her career was the rise of nasty rumors of an incestual relationship with her sister, Dorothy. Resolved to keep her private life private, she was nonetheless hounded, quite unsuccessfully, by one George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

She later confessed: What kind of wife would I have made? A good wife is a seven day a week, twenty-four-hour-a-day job. I was devoted to the studio. I loved many beautiful men but I never ruined their lives. Not unlike women in other time-consuming lines of work, women in film seem to feel that marriage to your work precludes any other type of personal allegiances. Gish won a special Oscar for her cumulative work in 1970.

After a long screen absence, she returned for a special appearance in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” (1978), and kept on going with her 104th film in “The Whales of August” (1987) with Bette Davis. At the time, Gish was ninety-one.

Above: “A Wedding” photo gallery, below – “The Whales of August” 1987

Ally Acker  – 1991

Reel women : pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present
Reel women : pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present

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An Interview with LILLIAN GISH

By Ronald Bowers

  • A Survey of 1982 Films Edited by FRANK N. MAGILL

There is simply one “First Lady” of American cinema, and she is Miss Lillian Gish. Her career in motion pictures is without equal. Along with her mentor, D. W. Griffith, she was a pioneer who created her own art form. Imitated by generations of performers, she has herself always been a pioneer, never an imitator. “D. W. Griffith was the father of film form and grammar,” she explains. “The French had hinted at the possibilities of film before him, but he put it all together first.” The same could be said of Lillian Gish and her self-evolved style of screen acting.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father, James Lee Gish, was a traveling salesman from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and her mother, Mary Robinson McConnell Gish, numbered among her ancestors the poet Emily Ward and President Zachary Taylor. Gish’s father’s work required the family to live in various cities before the turn of the century, and it was in Dayton, Ohio, that her sister, Dorothy, was born on March 11, 1898. Eventually, Mrs. Gish separated from her husband and took her two daughters to New York City to look for work. As Dorothy once explained in an interview: “We were practically destitute. [Mother] rented one of the old fashioned railroad apartments, and advertised for ‘genteel lady roomers.  One of the genteel ladies who rented a room was an actress [Dolores Lome], and after she had been with us a few weeks, she had an offer for a part in a road company production of East Lynne, provided she could find a small child of either sex to play the part of Little Willie. She asked Mother if she could borrow me for the role, and Mother was willing, and so, at four, I became Little Willie. Then Lillian got parts too, and so did Mother, and there we were, all three of us, actresses.”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

Officially, Gish made her stage debut when she was five years old, in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a play called In Convict’s Stripes; as she recalls, “I took my first curtain call on the shoulders of the handsome leading man, Walter Huston.”

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

On rare occasions, the three Gishes were able to act together in the same play, but for the most part, they worked separately, with Mrs. Gish accompanying her younger daughter and Lillian being chaperoned by a family friend. During one period of unemployment, the Gishes worked at a candy concession in Brooklyn’s Fort George Amusement Park, where they were joined by another temporarily out-of-work family, the Smiths, consisting of mother Charlotte and three youngsters named Gladys, Lottie, and Jack. Gladys eventually became known as Mary Pickford.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

In 1905, nine-year-old Lillian was employed as a dancer with the Sarah Bernhardt stage company, then on tour in New York City, and Gish recalls that the divine Sarah “was kind, . . . but discipline was rigid in that company.” The Gishes continued to act in road-company productions, and 1912 found both Lillian and Dorothy in Baltimore. Gish remembers: “We weren’t children, but we weren’t grown-up either. Whenever we had saved up a nickel, we would go see Biograph pictures. They were the only ones we liked. So when we saw that our friend Gladys Smith was in a movie called Lena and the Geese (1912), we went to see it. However, we thought she must be in some kind of trouble if she was in the movies instead of acting in the theater, because we didn’t think movie acting was quite legitimate then. But later we learned that Lionel Barrymore worked there, and Mother said. ‘Well, if there’s a Barrymore there, it can’t be all that bad.'” Leaving Baltimore, the Gishes returned to New York City and paid a visit to the Biograph Studio at 11 East 14th Street to see their friend Mary Pickford who by then had appeared in more than one hundred motion pictures (mostly one-reelers) and had become Biograph’s most popular actress. Pickford introduced her two friends to the formidable D. W. Griffith, and that same afternoon, Gish says, he hired them at five dollars a day and began rehearsing them. “His rehearsal consisted of chasing us around the room and firing a gun filled with blanks at the ceiling to see how we could express fright. We thought we were in an insane asylum.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912 — with Lillian Gish.

Both Gish sisters worked as extras with Griffith’s stock company, and soon they were cast as sisters in leading roles in a melodrama entitled An Unseen Enemy (1912). Griffith then chose Lillian to play the sweatshop worker who is harrassed by hoodlums in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) important as an early example of Griffith’s expert directorial technique.

While the family welcomed the money—often their weekly salary in theater had been only ten dollars—Gish’s aspirations were always for the theater. Late in 1912, she signed with David Belasco to appear with Pickford in A Good Little Devil. The play opened in January, 1913, but shortly thereafter Lillian fell ill with ‘pernicious anemia.’ As was his practice during the winters. Griffith took his Biograph players, including Dorothy, to California. Before leaving. Griffith offered Lillian fifty dollars a week to join them upon her recuperation. Gish did giving up her theater ambitions for the time being to participate in a revolutionary era in motion-picture history.

DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish - background Robert Harron
DW Griffith directing Lillian Gish – background Robert Harron

From the very beginning of their association. Griffith never told Gish, or any of his performers, how to act. Gish says, “He never taught us how to act. He simply said study the human race. And he was right. That’s the best way to learn. And also one should play ever) game, like tennis, that one can. I took fencing lessons and all kinds of dancing lessons so that I learned to control the way my body moved. But nobody can teach acting. Just speak loud and clear and learn to have absolute control over your body and voice.”

Fine Arts Griffith Stars 2
Fine Arts – Griffith Stars Back Row: Dorothy Gish, Seena Owen, Norma Talmadge Middle Row: Robert Harron, Harry Aitken (producer), Sir Beerbohm-Tree, Owen Moore, Wilfred Lucas Front Row: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Constance Collier, Lillian Gish (Marfa in Sold For Marriage), Fay Tincher, DeWolfe Hopper Photograph – Raymond Lee of Roy George Association

From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for thepictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”

1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos - Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
1980 Lillian Gish and Anita Loos – Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Gish perfected her craft in picture after picture, and in 1912 alone she appeared in three films with Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, most notably The New York Hat, which was based on the first screenplay written by the inimitable Anita Loos. Gish and Loos remained lifelong friends, and Gish recalls: “We called her Mrs. Spinoza’ because she was so wise; we didn’t open our mouths around her. She wrote stories and subtitles and was a talented, beautiful, and funny lady.”

Pickford soon left Griffith to establish her unique place in silent films, but she and Gish remained lifelong friends. “Mary always credited me with her successful career playing a child,” says Gish, “I told her to play a child. I had seen her play Essex the child in Little Lord Fauntleroy and I suggested she do a full-length film about a child. At the time, Marguerite Clark was successful playing children on the screen because she was tiny four feet, ten inches] and weighed only about ninety pounds. But Marguerite was dark and a different type, so I told Mary she should try it also. And she did.”

Many years later, the mature, retired Mary Pickford announced that she was going to burn the prints of all of her old films. Gish heard about it and intervened: “I told her she had no right to destroy her films. They don’t belong to you,’ I said. They belong to the world.’ And thank heavens she listened.” In 1913, Griffith starred Gish in a picture developed expressly for her talents — The Mothering Heart—then cast her as the young mother in his four reel epic, Judith of Betluilia ( 1913). When he left Biograph at the end of 1913, Lillian and Dorothy followed him to the Mutual Company. Gish quickly grew in popularity with the American public, and consequently Griffith cast her as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), a part originally intended for Blanche Sweet. The film remains a hallmark in American motion-picture history and in Gish’s career. “We shot that picture in nine weeks. We rehearsed it extensively and then shot it—every scene but one— in one take. We had to shoot Mae Marsh’s death scene twice because she forgot to wrap the Confederate flag around her waist.”

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

It had become Griffith’s practice to rehearse his actors repeatedly to save both money and film when shooting time came. “We rehearsed extensively and never with a script,” remembers Gish. “Nothing was written down. He called the part out to us, and it was up to us to find the character. During those nine weeks on The Birth of a Nation, we stopped only here and there so he could go out and get some more money. That film cost sixty-one thousand dollars, and he had only fifty thousand dollars, so he would borrow from anyone he could. One day Mother offered him three hundred dollars, andhe asked how much money she had in all. She said just that three hundred, and he refused to accept it. He always considered others before himself. And when he died, even though he was broke, he owed no one a penny. He was a true Southern gentleman.”

Thereupon followed Gish’s star years with Griffith: Intolerance (1916); Hearts of the World (1918), with her sister, Dorothy; Broken Blossoms (1919); Way Down East (1920) ; and Orphans of the Storm (1921). again with Dorothy.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

In Intolerance, Gish’s part was a small but pivotal one. Swathed in white, she was the mother rocking the cradle in the scene which linked the four part story together. Hearts of the World was a popular and important film, but Gish’s favorite among her films is Broken Blossoms, in which she starred to great acclaim with Richard Barthelmess. It was in this film that she gave her highly personal lyrical style its fullest  expression. By this time in their association, Griffith had complete confidence in Gish’s talent; “I give her an outline of what I hope to accomplish and let her work it out her own way. When she gets it, she has  something of her own. Of course she is imitated. A dozen actresses copy whatever she does and even get themselves up to look like her, which obliges her to change her methods.”

Gish worked in two more Griffith films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, and then, by mutual consent, she struck out on her own. It was simply a matter of economics. She was worth more than Griffith could pay her, and as he had done with other actresses before her who had gained stardom under his aegis—Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh — he suggested that Gish should seek the fortune and acclaim she so richly deserved. “Thus,” she says, “in the most friendly way, an artistic and business association of many years was broken off as casually as it had begun.” In 1922, Gish signed an eight-year contract with Inspiration Pictures for $1,250 a week plus fifteen percent of the profits and story approval. Her first Inspiration film was The White Sister (1923), directed by Henry King. Gish played a nun, and the picture was shot in Italy during a period of seven months.

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

Shortly before the cast and crew were scheduled to sail for Europe, there was still no leading man. Gish recalls: “Ronald Colman was appearing on Broadway in La Tendresse, with Ruth Chatterton. The photographer James Abbe, who was going to photograph the stills for The White Sister, saw him in the play and told me about him. and so Henry and I went to see him. I thought he would be an excellent choice for the part of the Italian Captain Severi, and so we went to talk with the play’s producer, Henry Miller. That was on a Thursday. Miller graciously released Colman, and we sailed on Saturday.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and Ronald Colman in Rome during the filming of The White Sister - 1923 — with Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman.

“Colman was a charming man, but there was one scene which caused him difficulty. He was British to the core, and the scene called for him to lose his temper like an Italian. He was too British to unbend. So one night at dinner. I suggested to Henry that we give him too much to drink and shoot the scene that night. We did,” she laughs, “and he finally did unbend.”

Romola (1924), also with Colman, was Gish’s second and final picture for Inspiration; she had experienced contractual difficulties with Charles H. Duell, the company’s president, from the beginning. She signed an $800,000, six picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the films were to be made during a two-year period, and she was to have  approval of both story and director.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert

At M-G-M, Lillian worked closely with Irving G. Thalberg. Her first picture for them was La Boheme (1926), about which she says, “I adored Irving from the beginning. Next to Griffith, I respected him the most. Louis B. Mayer was the businessman, but it was Irving who was so sensitive and artistic. And he was greatly overworked. When I went to M-G-M, I asked him to screen The Big Parade (1925) for me, and after seeing it, I asked him to get me the director [King Vidor] and the leading man [John Gilbert] for La Boheme. I also requested photographer Hendrick Sartov, who had photographed a number of my Griffith films and who had invented a soft-focus lens which he called the ‘Lillian Gish lens.’ Irving agreed, and he let me do it my own way.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)4

“I told my friend Madame Freddie [dramatist Madame Frederick de Gresac] to adapt the story for me [it was based on the novel The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1848), by Henri Murger], and she worked on it, and then Frances Marion took over and wrote the screenplay. Irving was wonderful throughout. John Gilbert couldn’t have been nicer to work with. He was never any trouble.” However, some M-G-M practices did distract her. “Griffith never used mood music on his sets, but when I went to M-G-M for La Boheme, I realized it was an accepted practice to have mood musicians playing while the actors were acting. I love music, but not when I’m working. It distracted me, but the others could not do without it. Also, I was used to extensive rehearsals before actual filming began, but they did not rehearse at M-G-M. It embarrassed them to rehearse. They would do a scene, and if it wasn’t right, they would shoot it again, and again if necessary. Since I was in the minority, I went along and did it their way.”

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish 1926 Mimi passed away ... (the last scene)

Years after the release of La Boheme, King Vidor wrote that he suspected that Gish had used cotton balls in her mouth for her famous death scene. Gish replies: “It was absolutely not true. I think he must have been thinking of Helen Hayes when she played Queen Victoria as an old lady, because there it was appropriate. But Mimi in La Boheme was emaciated and dying of tuberculosis. The last thing you would do would be to fill out the cheeks. They should be sunken in. I went to the county hospital with a priest to see the tuberculosis patients, and in my death scene I endeavored to imitate their thinness and their sunken cheeks, exactly the look of someone in that condition. That was simply more of studying the human race, like Griffith had advised me years before. I don’t know where Vidor got that idea, but nonetheless, he supposedly had to look away while shooting the scene because hehad tears in his eyes. He was a talented, gentle man.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

Gish’s second M-G-M feature was The Scarlet Letter (1926), and once several obstacles were overcome, her working experience with Thalberg was as always a rewarding one. The main obstacle was that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel had been banned by a number of women’s clubs and church groups.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

“I went to Mr. Mayer and said I wanted to do The Scarlet Letter: he said it was impossible because of the ban. I said. ‘If I can get the ban lifted, will you let me do it? He said yes, and we did it. I went to Irving, and he screened The Story of Gosta Berling (1924) for me. The film starred Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson, and when I saw Lars’s face I said. There’s my Dimsdale. I wanted Victor Seastrom as director because I had seen him direct something at M-G-M and I thought he came nearer to re-creating the tempo of our own people in 1640, which was the time period of The Scarlet Letter. People moved at a slower pace then, and he suited the Puritan image. He was a wonderful man, a beautiful director, an artist. And again Irving agreed with my every decision. I think it relieved him of some of his heavy workload.” Gish’s triumphant portrayal of Hester Prynne has been described best by critic Pauline Kael: “Her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was another, who can move like Lillian Gish: it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it!”

Seastrom directed Gish in another remarkable performance in The Wind (1928), which also costarred Lars Hanson, but the arrival of sound prevented that picture from gaining the audience it deserved. The arrival of sound caused Gish to reassess her career, and she ended her contract with M-G-M after The Wind, the fifth of the proposed six films.

THE WIND, Lillian Gish, 1928 HC8WJ8

Always a dedicated artist, Gish had described vividly the vicissitudes of an acting career in an interview in 1927: “Perhaps much is lost in selecting an acting career. Personal contacts and friendships must be neglected because long and irregular working hours eliminate the possibility of planned social gatherings. You must be terrifically earnest and interested in your work and not be swayed from the path which leads to your desired goal. You must live with the story you are going to appear in from the moment the scenario goes into the writing until the time it is completed, breathing with the character until you become it. The life of a motion-picture actress might be likened to a billowing wave in the mighty Pacific, with new waves constantly rushing on and pushing it to shore. It takes strength and sureness to successfully battle in the big pond and to keep your place there.” This dedication to acting is the primary reason why Gish never married, she never did believe that an actress would be a good wife. You’ve simply got to be one or the other — never both. I would have been a very bad wife.”

Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928

In striving to maintain her place in the “big pond.” Gish considered several projects which never materialized. She spent considerable time discussing with French director Abel Gance a production of Joan of Arc. “‘We planned to shoot it on actual locations in France, and the French government was going to finance it. but I had contract obligations which interfered, and we never got to do it. “I also worked for a year with Max Reinhardt and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal on a project called The Miracle Girl. It was the story of a peasant girl who could not even write her name but in ecstasy exhibited signs of the stigmata. It simply had to be done as a silent picture or it would have been ridiculous, so the arrival of sound prevented our ever doing it.”

Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan

Gish signed a contract with United Artists to star in three films of her choosing, making her talking debut in One Romantic Night (1930), an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play – 1920: The Swan, (1929) costarring Conrad Nagel and Rod LaRocque. Gish’s voice was immediately accepted by the critics, but the picture was not. and Gish cancelled her contract and returned to the stage.

1930 promo - Nine Pine Street
Nine Pine Street

Gish starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1930). followed by Nine Pine Street (1933) and Camille (1936). Motion pictures took second place in her career, and more plays followed: Hamlet (1936). in which she was Ophelia to John Gielgud’s melancholy Dane: Life with Father 1947), another personal triumph; and Crime and Punishment (1947).

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

Her occasional work in films included two supporting roles in David O. Selznick productions. In the extravagant Wagnerian Western. Duel in the Sun (1946). she played the wife of rancher Lionel Barrymore and the mother of feuding brothers played by Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck. In Portrait of Jennie (1948). she played a nun. Her role in Duel in the Sun brought Gish her only Academy Award nomination. Recalling her role in the latter. Gish observes: ‘”Years earlier Lionel Barrymore had played my grandfather, then my father, and now my husband. I suppose if he had lived long enough, he would have played my son!”

Duel in The Sun, (behind the scenes) Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, on Set, 1946

Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.”

In 1953. Gish played one of her favorite roles—the woman searching for her lost spirit in Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful. Originally, she had starred in the television version for NBC-TV’s Philco Hour.

Philco Television Playhouse Lillian Gish Bert Lytell

It received excellent reviews, and Gish notes that “It was the first television film that the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives.” Foote expanded the television version for the stage, and Gish repeated her role when it opened in November. 1953. to some of the best reviews of her career. The stage version costarred Jo Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint and was directed by Vincent Donahue. Many critics called it the greatest performance of Gish’s career.

Two years later, Gish had an excellent film role as the eccentric old maid in The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton from a script by James Agee. “Charles Laughton went to the Museum of Modern Art and asked to see all of my old films with D. W. Griffith. Then he called and asked me to tea with James Agee and several others. He said, ‘When I was starting out in this business, people used to go to a movie and sit up in their seats and look at the screen. Now they go to eat popcorn. I want to sit them up in their seats again.’ After hearing that, I was convinced I should do the picture with him. Once we began work on it, we would sometimes ask him questions about what he meant by this or that, and he would exclaim, ‘Oh, oh, what am I doing wrong?’ He had no belief in himself. If he had, he would have been a great director.” Gish describes Robert Mitchum, the star of The Night of the Hunter, as a “very underrated actor; he was charming to work with.”

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

In 1956, Lillian and Dorothy starred together in a stage production of The Chalk Garden, and in 1960, Lillian starred in a televsion version of Truman Capote’s first play, The Grass Harp. Capote had written that play for the Gish sisters, and they both had considered appearing in its original stage production in 1953. Gish explains why that did not come to pass: “Dorothy and I were interested in starring in The Grass Harp, but the producers prevented our doing so. We met with them, and they said they had signed scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones to do the sets. We both liked Jones very much, and since the play was a kind of fairy tale, we knew he would provide the right touch. But after the meeting with the producers, we talked with Jones, and he said he had never been approached. We knew we couldn’t work with people like that, and we never did. When it was produced, they used a tree that Die Gotterdammerung could not have dominated. The  production failed, but it could have been done well. Eventually I did get to appear in the television version.”